Hope and Change: In Praise of Universal Preschool Choice

July 1, 2011

Two years ago in Oklahoma City, Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. James Heckman made the case for early childhood education. No surprise: He came to town at the invitation of architects of the state’s early children education programs.

However, the surprise was that Heckman reiterated support for school choice within the early childhood framework, saying it “engages both the private sector and the public sector in production of ideas to meet educational needs.” There ought to be “multiple, diverse modes of delivery,” Heckman added.

“Competition plays a role” in good policy, Heckman believes. Private-sector involvement assures that private financing is made available for early childhood education, “especially in times of economic challenge.” Heckman contended that choice in education demonstrates “respect for cultural diversity” and is a way to “improve funding and performance.”

When choice is permitted, “religious groups can pick for themselves” how to meet those needs in development of a child’s cognition and self-control. Programs can and should accommodate the interests of “Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Southern Baptists, you name it.”

Whether or not universal early childhood education is a good idea, universal preschool choice is a fundamental idea, and its time has come.

Parents are the first teachers of children, and the home is their first “government.” Policies ceding some educational control to government must retain this insight—children belong to themselves and to families before they enter institutional settings, public or private.

Consider the premise: If early childhood education is going to be treated as a “given” (and with 71 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds in state-funded prekindergarten, it apparently is), then the reform dynamic for choice now entering the K–12 system should be applied into the early years.

So what policies could advance universal preschool choice?

How about this: empower families with single-income earners in ways government already grants to public schools? Writing for OCPA, economists Scott Moody and Wendy Warcholik have deemed this “leveling the playing field” between parents who teach their own children at home (at least until compulsory schooling at age 5) and those who place children in pre-kindergarten programs.

Adam B. Schaeffer of the Cato Institute has another idea. His early childhood tax credit “aims to sustain any potential preschool benefits and establish a solid academic foundation for later success. The program would improve the quality and efficiency of preschool options by harnessing market forces and would pay for itself by using savings generated from the migration of students from public to private schools in grades K–4.

“The Early Education Tax Credit approach is unique in meeting the demands of activists for expanded access to high-quality preschool, meeting the needs of children and the preferences of their parents, and meeting the goal of increased educational freedom—all while keeping the budgetary impact low or positive.”

Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute writes concerning another approach to educational empowerment: an education savings account (ESA). “With an education savings account, if a student leaves his traditional public school, a portion of the state funding for that student goes into a dedicated account. The student’s family can use an education savings account for any educational purpose—private school tuition, distance learning, tutoring, dual enrollment in a community college, or savings for college after high school.”

Bolick continued, “Education savings accounts have the potential to fundamentally transform the K–12 school system into a way of delivering an education that’s tailored to the needs and abilities of every child. Education savings accounts reorient the government’s role from directly providing educational services to funding services wherever the family deems best.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) recently unveiled ESA model legislation.

Based on recent history, there are reasons to hope that Oklahoma might move aggressively toward choice. But just in case incrementalism is preferred, the model already exists in the Legislature’s adoption of special-needs scholarships in 2010 and opportunity scholarships for low-income children in 2011 (both of which are available for four-year-olds).

School choice is advancing because justice appeals to the fairness, equity, and decency that animates the core beliefs of most of our people.

In April, state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, a south Oklahoma City Democrat, explained her support for opportunity scholarships as she told colleagues the schools most of her young constituents attend “are essentially factories. Those schools not only do not provide them with the kind of education that they need to have a future, but they destroy their souls while they’re at it. The schools are dangerous. The schools are dehumanizing.”

She contended, “I wish there was a way that we could help them all, and I know that this [bill] won’t help them all. But I cannot turn my back on the ones that it will help.”

She told her colleagues, “I wish that we had a public education system that provided the kind of educational experience for every child in Oklahoma where they had a hope and a future. But it does not, and we do not.

“The number one thing lacking in my district among my children is hope. You take hope away from people, and you destroy them. You take hope away from people … and you get something that is dangerous, and destructive, and that ends up costing you a lot more money, if money is what this is all about. Hopeless people are dangerous people. That’s what these schools give these children right now: no hope. That’s what this bill does give them: hope.”

School choice has come to Oklahoma. So has early childhood education. Might as well find a way to put the two together.

Patrick B. McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of CapitolBeatOK.com.